Reviewby Tim Henderson, Mar 28th 2011
Xam'd: Lost Memories - Collection 1 DVD
A hidden power, when flesh becomes metal!
When a young boy on a peaceful island becomes the victim of a terrorist attack, he transforms into Xam'd, a powerful mecha capable of extreme power. Now he must discover the depth of his power and the role he plays in a world where metal and rock meet flesh, desire, and destiny.
The very first impression Xam'd imparts on its audience is one of opulence: of a quasi-future where water springs forth like liquefied crystal, and where an advanced, cultured people of silvery hair have given rise to decorative art that can make even science mesmerising in its quizzically botanical beauty. Bright lighting filters saturate the scene, and no apologies are needed for the shameless splendour of the purple sky overhead.
This is short lived though. Attention soon shifts to a more openly steampunk airship of grubbier qualities – specifically to a young red-haired girl, Nakiami, as she boards a single-seat vessel of her own and sails past the bridge window. The jet of burning blue that follows her has already become a whole world away from the technology on-board the ship from which she just departed; the world of science fiction is torn further away with every cut the camera makes.
And then, finally, viewers are brought down to reality as the main cast of Xam'd likely see it. Tinges of purple still remain – stained frequently into whites and other greyscale shades – but as we move from the scene where lead-character Akiyuki is woken by his mother and goes through the motions of visiting his father and heading to the bus stop, the overall palette takes the blinding glow of the intro's lighting and turns it upon itself. The world portrayed here is one of great colourful diversity, but it is also worn and weathered – damaged and cracked by years of sunshine and living.
The muted vibrancy that floods many of its locations is one of Xam'd's greatest victories. Its visual design harkens Gonzo's Last Exile quite strongly, and while it is arguably less accomplished in its overall visual execution, it is also more ambitious and daring with the flexibility of its colour keys. Homes and streets on Sentan island (and indeed throughout the numerous other locations these early episodes visit) show a keen sense of personal decoration mixed with a community culture, and colours appear painted on – there's a very real sense of texture to the materials that were used to build this town. Shiny CG filters have been kept on a tight leash, and the show becomes stronger for it.
It's a small shame then that slow measured character drama isn't really Xam'd's core focus. Character interaction and development feels stifled, particularly in earlier episodes where the cast act more as cyphers for establishing necessary plot and scenario events than they do as actual, believable people. This is especially true of the supporting characters such as Akiyuki's fairly orthodox classmates and separated parents.
Although bearing witness to character behaviour works for the plot's convenience at the cost of plausibility can annoy, this is largely the result of Xam'd having large promise as being something it's really not. The backdrop for the show has potential to grow a story that echoes Haibane Renmei, but this is squandered in the name of action and high adventure. Weaker characterisation feels more acceptable within these boundaries, but some of the early potential displayed by Xam'd in its aesthetic world design calls into question why this is the case – is it so hard to try and reach for the best of both worlds?
Nonetheless, Akiyuki becomes accidentally involved in a bus bombing and the culprit bestows a power on him that effectively turns him into a alien being known as a Xam'd. His mutant form looks a little too much like an overgrown pokémon, and the very existence of that particular show may have a lot to answer for in terms of making Xam'd a little harder to watch with a straight face. Such creatures feel out of place in a lavishly detailed fantastical world with hints of political overtones; Akiyuki's ensuing rampage borders on comedic, at least until Nakiami puts a stop to this on more ways than one. Not only does she return Akiyuki to his human form, but she offers up an air of mystery and a promise of an intriguing story surrounding Akiyuki's new condition and how it may relate to the monsters known as 'human form' that seem to be at the heart of a lot of problems in this world.
It is at this point where the two main narrative strands cross. Akiyuki ends up on a large mail vessel – the very ship from the opening sequence – unwillingly dragged into exploring the world under the command of a scantly-clad captain and... wait. Really, Bones? Did you have to do that? I have nothing against boobs – as a heterosexual male, I'm genetically programmed to like them – but did you have to go and throw such a flippant decision into an otherwise impressively cohesive design? Well, at least we know that we're still watching anime here....
All of this happens over a slowly bubbling military backdrop – a sub-plot where ninety-degree angles rule where uneven cobblestones once claimed their territory. Little is explained early on, other than obvious elucidation to otherworldly experiments that are highly likely to infiltrate the show's later narrative arc. There is in all honestly, little panache here, and in general there is nothing stand-out about Xam'd's current action sequences or overall direction.
But it's the semi-central cultural ring of this world that keeps Xam'd ahead of the pack, at least in the early game. Its world possesses a peculiar mix of inventive, rustic designs mixed in with aspects of contemporary Japanese culture – food presentation, school uniforms, the peculiar way that an European styled road can lead to a distinctly Asian shrine gate – that is easy to become smitten by, and this aesthetic charm helps to offset the occasionally rough animation, and even mitigates an early lack of clear focus.
The audio compliment is of mixed aspiration: swinging between breathing depth into the design aesthetic and trying to provide typical dramatic beats, it's a little out of touch with an approach to visual design that puts presentation far ahead of emotionally charged spaces, but perhaps this is a criticism of director rather than composer. Regardless, the score fits much more tightly than the totally expendable opening and closing title songs. Xam'd has had an interesting history of distribution that actually began over the Playstation Network, and the songs that bookend each episode were changed for the TV broadcast – proof of their purpose as marketable merchandise rather than artistically fitted pieces.
We were sent a preview disc of six episodes for review, with no extras to speak of. It is worth noting, however, that while the video on the DVD will look as good as can be expected if you're still rocking an old-school SD television, it doesn't upscale particularly well. Fortunately, the heritage of production here is born from Sony's early HD push, and as such the Blu-Ray alternative has fantastic promise.
© BONES / Sony Computer Entertainment Inc., Aniplex
Overall : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
+ Intriguing world; admirable restraint with CG effects
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